It was a sunny and very breezy day, last Sunday, October 4th, as one small raft came into view on the Mississippi River. A man who is normally behind his desk or safely on solid ground in any other year, and his very small crew and mascot dog "Puppa", made a stop at the Kidd's dock on the banks of the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau. This wasn't his only destination.
The journey for Erich Mische, Executive Director of Spare Key, started in Minnesota on August 27th, and he began slowly working his way to Louisiana, setting out on a 1,700 mile, two-month, ten-state journey down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft christened the “S.S. Hail Mary.”
The trip was deemed "Hope On The River". He carries with him the mission of "Help Me Bounce", a donor direct platform set up in 2018. It was formed to allow families facing a medical crisis to secure funds to cover critical financial needs. But, the mission has expanded.
Executive director, Erich Mische, explained. "So Spare Key was founded in 1997, and what we do, is we help families who are facing a significant medical crisis by helping them pay their bills. So our goal is to try to help them avoid adding a financial crisis on top of the medical crisis that they're already dealing with. We may help them make their mortgage, their car payment, their utilities--God forbid, we even do funeral expenses. But the goal really is, is to serve those families that are dealing with the medical crisis so significant that just even trying to pay the bills is really a challenge."
But it hasn't been without it's challenges. Every stop, he has to pump out his raft, that occasionally takes on water. He also briefly talked about his sometimes harrowing encounter with much larger vessels and choppy waters.
He explains the process, and speaks candidly, as he is using a generator powered pump to rid the shallow raft of water from the Mississippi. "There's almost 100 gallons in one tube, so if you figure one gallon weighs eight pounds, that's like having the equivalent of eight of [that person] on our raft."
Needless to say, the raft isn't able to hold much weight. The vessel consists of a small, used pontoon platform, with a screened-in space, reinforced with advertising board and plyboard above, which serves as a rudimentary shelter when traveling. When needed, it is powered by two, donated, used outboard motors.
Mische, who admits he is "..afraid of the dark and scared of wild animals", has been eating, living and sleeping on the raft, so he is not your average captain. With the generous support of his family and friends, the S.S. Hail Mary raft was built and supported with donations of time, money and resources from various individuals and organizations. It carries with it at every stop, the committment to help families "Bounce and Not Break".
Mische explained the challenges of Spare Key, as well as other organizations during the coronavirus pandemic. "Spare Key, like other non-profits all across the country, have been devastated by COVID's impact on the economy."
He continued to explain the toll on planned fundraising events, as well. "Nearly all of our events that we've had, our fundraising events that we've had planned were cancelled or postponed. And so we had to come up with some way to keep the doors open, and the lights on. And we couldn't bring people to events, so I came up with the idea, that I would bring Spare Key down the river."
He explained the mission of the journey. "So we call this trip 'Hope On The River'. And the goal here, one, is to obviously tell people about Spare Key, and to share with them, what we do--make sure families that need help, can reach out to us, and learn more about Spare Key. But it's also --we live in times right now, where people are really hungry for something hopeful and positive."
He contintued to explain the response he's had on his trip. "And I will tell you, that from every mile that I've come down on this river, people are looking for that, and they have been giving that [hope] to me as well."
Locally, John McGowan helped make arrangements for his brief stop in Cape Girardeau, and overnight accommodations while he was in town. His next stop was was Hickman, Misssouri the next day, October 5th. From there, he continued his journey down the Mississippi River.
To read Mische's travel blog for "Hope on the River", learn more about Spare Key, and support the organization, you may visit HopeOnTheRiver.com. Those wanting to support the organization financially can also donate by texting the keyword “RIVER” to 52000.